Friday, November 19, 2010

An Explanation of Encaustic

Well, I promised that I’d write an informative post on what exactly it is that I’m painting with and how it works, so here it is. I use encaustic paint which is basically molten wax. The word encaustic means “to burn in” and that describes the process pretty well. Specifically, encaustics is composed of bees wax, damar resin, and powdered pigment for color. Encaustic medium is simply the bees wax plus the resin and is used to dilute the concentrated pigmented wax and to create beautiful transparent effects. Bees wax is relatively durable, flexible, and has a high melting temperature so it won’t melt under gallery lights and normal temperatures in a home. The more resin that is used the harder the surface of the piece will be and the shinier it will be when it’s buffed with a soft cotton cloth. The wax is kept liquid while painting by a heated surface that will reach 225 degrees, like a pancake griddle. You can melt the wax directly onto the griddle, use small metal cups, muffin tins, tin foil, or anything that will allow you to mix the paint and keep it hot. I also like to melt my plain encaustic medium in a big crock pot I bought at the Goodwill for $5.

Encaustic is an ancient medium that Greek artists used back as long ago as the 5th century BC for portraits and panels. The earliest surviving encaustics are the famous Fayum funeral portraits found on mummies that were created by Greek artists in Egypt between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D. The vibrancy of these portraits is a testament to the archival nature of encaustic paint. Encaustic paint was also used by Rembrandt, Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns and seems to be having a recent revival due to it’s versatility and mostly non-toxic nature.

There are a few simple rules for dealing with encaustic paint. Number one is that you must have a sturdy substrate. Boards, or canvas/paper mounted on boards work best, but other stiff porous surfaces can be used as well. Canvas stretched over stretcher bars will not work because one bump of the canvas and all your hard work may just crack and fall off. Non porous substrates like glass or metal are usually not thought to work because the wax won’t absorb into the surface, however when I was at the Portland Open Studios Charles Sites showed encaustic paintings he did on glass and metal that he sandblasted first. He claims to be the first artist to use this technique and says that it’s fairly archival.

The second rule is that you can’t mix acrylic paint with encaustic wax. That means that you can’t use acrylic gesso to prep a board like you would for oil paintings. You actually don’t have to prep a board at all and can start painting straight onto the raw wood, but if you like a clean white starting point you can glue watercolor paper onto a board using rabbit skin glue or acrylic gel medium (that’s the only ok time to use acrylic), you can stretch canvas over a board, or you can use encaustic gesso that is specially formulated for the process. I used to use the watercolor paper technique, but found that I had uneven absorption of the wax and have since switched to using R & F brand encaustic gesso. It’s a bit more prep time since I have to use two coats but so far I really like it.

The third rule is that you have to fuse the layers with a heat source while painting. This means that every time after you put a layer of wax down on your board you have to melt it together with the rest of the painting or in time the layers might separate and crack off. A heat source can be a heat gun, a propane torch, an incandescent light bulb (100-200 watts), or an iron. Right now I’m using an embossing heat gun which are widely found in craft stores but I’m hoping for my very own propane torch for Christmas (yeah fire!!). The embossing gun works well but blows the air around so once the wax is melted it can blow my carefully crafted details in a molten wax puddle if I leave it in one spot too long. The propane torch is adjustable and doesn’t move the air so your details remain intact. All the heat sources will fuse your wax and are useful for different effects, it’s just a matter of what you’re trying to accomplish and what your personal preference is.

What I really enjoy about encaustics is that you can pretty much do anything with it. You can use it like regular paint, scratch lines in it, incise it, build it up, scrape it back, add texture and collage materials, and even do image transfers. It’s a medium that will become what you want it to. It can be paint, drawing and sculpture all at the same time. My other favorite aspect of encaustics is that there really are no mistakes. If there is a part you don’t like on your piece you can simply scrape it away and start over. The speed of encaustics appeals to my ADD side as well. Since there really is no drying time you can work quickly and finish a painting in one afternoon, unlike oils. It’s versatile, forgivable, fast, and just plain beautiful if done right.

If you’d like to know more about encaustics there are two books I would recommend that are really informative and helpful. There are tons of books out there but these are the two that I saw in every encaustic studio I visited during the tour.

The Art of Encaustic Painting, Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax, by Joanne Mattera

Embracing Encaustic, Learning to Paint with Beeswax, by Linda and William Womack

Here are some of my favorite local encaustic artists and their websites (most of whom I met during the awesome Portland Open Studio tour). Check them out to see all the different ways that encaustics can be used.

-The mother of modern encaustics (and a super nice lady), she created her own line of encaustic paints and kits, but recently closed the business to concentrate on her painting. If you see Wagner paints snatch them up before they're gone!

-Wrote the book on encaustics...literally.

-Trees and birds and bridges...oh my! Plus she does great stuff for the community like her Recovery Panes project.

-Her work is so the stuff I like to buy, which made it more awesome that I won one of her pieces from a raffle during the studio tour!!

-Science and art make a beautiful pairing.

-When I was in her studio I couldn't decide which piece I wanted to buy most. Thank goodness she's usually selling during First Thursday on the street located along NW 13th between Hoyt St and Irving St.

I hope this answers some questions about what encaustics are and how you use them. If you have any questions please leave me a comment and I'll try my best to answer it or find the answer for you.



  1. Incredibly thorough description & wonderful links. Well done!

  2. This is a great intro. Thanks for taking the time and energy to create it. Very thoughtful. (I am going to link to it on my own Intro to Encaustics Page!)

    By the way, I'd like to recommend the new book to you: Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide to Creating Fine Art with Wax, by Lissa Rankin (Watson-Guptill; 2010). It is TOTALLY super. My review of it is here:

    Great book. Chock full of info plus very lush in illustrations. (Ask Santa for it!)